Last Chain on Billie

Carol Bradley / St. Martin's Press / 336 pages

The long history of brutal treatment of elephants in circuses is laid out in heart-wrenching detail in Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top. It is not a book for the faint of heart. More recent events are juxtaposed with the past, which began with the arrival in the United States of the first elephant—a baby, only 2 years old—hauled from India in 1796. The author, Carol Bradley, acquaints her readers with various elephants and the misery they endure, as well as with the people involved in the business of exploiting the elephants for commercial gain.

The book is named for Popsicle, later renamed Billie. In 1966, at the delicate age of 4, she was exhibited at a Massachusetts zoo where she was expected to perform tricks to entertain visitors. Six years later her sad saga as a traveling circus elephant began. Bright, she learned and performed complicated tricks, but she began to rebel against her handlers’ demands. Such “impertinence” is not tolerated and likely resulted in increased beatings in a rash effort to make her submissive; however, they only served to make her more distrustful of people. Ultimately, she is declared dangerous by the USDA and ordered taken off the circuit. Finally, in 2006, Billie begins a new life at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Billie bears the scars of her past along with a section of chain on her front left ankle. It takes five years of asylum before she is at long last comfortable offering up her foot and permitting its removal.